Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
October 2008
Breadth and Depth

Spore: An evolutionary dead end

I was looking forward to Spore. I was REALLY looking forward to it. For years, the anticipation had been building for the best creation/strategy/sandbox game of all time and now it had finally arrived. Would it consume my life? Would it live up to the hype? Would it rock my world? I had to find out.

Spore is a game that is really hard to pin down to a genre. It has elements of a life simulator, a strategy game, a social sim game (like The Sims), an action arcade and an empire builder... but it presents these elements in stages.

You begin the game with a little tadpole in the Cell stage. Despite not really knowing what effect your decision will make, the first thing you get to do is choose what type of diet your creature will survive on. Knowing what happens to the bottom of the food chain, I decided to go with a carnivore because hey, better to eat than to be eaten, right?

With my little cell armed with teeth, I set off into the primordial soup and went to work munching smaller and weaker cells. Eventually, I ate enough food/DNA (yeah, don't go digging too deep for a scientific explanation) to earn some evolutionary upgrades. This enabled me to add on some spikes and tentacles which gave me better protection and more speed. Continuing on with my feeding, I found the cell phase is fun for a little while in the same sort of way a slow action arcade game is. After a while, though, you start to realize how limited your choices and world are and it starts to get dull fast. Thankfully, you will soon find you've gone far enough that you're ready to move to the next phase, the creature phase.

My creature = Barney + a tree + ???

Thanks to the Spore Creature Creator released a few months ago, the creature phase is probably the most well known and most publicized part of the game. Creating a creature was by far my favorite of the creation tools and the combinations of arms, legs, eyes, spikes, body shapes, fangs, and random accessories is mindblowing. I pieced together a wild looking beast with mouths for hands and set off looking for more creatures to carnivorize.

With your creature created, this phase begins to open up a lot more options for things to do and ways to play. You can choose to make friends with other tribes by mimicking their dancing, singing, or other social expressions. Alternatively, you can bite and spit your way to victory by wiping out other groups and eating their remains. Along the way, you continue to pick up evolution points and evolution options which let you grow stronger or more social.

Nothing herbivore about this guy

Getting constant access to new parts and accessories for my creature was a lot of fun, but since I was able to completely reshape my character and style of play any time I wanted, I began to realize just how limited the end results were. I didn't really have to live with any decisions I made, and what's more, the decisions I was making were actually pretty limited. Still, the creature phase was probably the highlight of the evolutionary ladder for me.

So, once you have made some friends or slayed some fiends, it's off to the tribe stage where you will control a group of your creatures and use tools to--you guessed it--make friends or kill enemies. The civilization stage is more of the same, but instead of tools, you have vehicles and buildings. Beyond the civilization stage is the space stage, where things actually get a lot more interesting. In the space stage, you get to use pieces of what you learned in previous stages as well as a whole lot of new tools and go around colonizing, terraforming, and exploring to your heart's content.

Falling short of expectations

A novel piece of the Spore gaming proposition is the idea of a massively-multiplayer single-player game. What is meant by that seeming contradiction is that while you will only ever interact with the AI, the creatures you encounter may be ones downloaded from the Spore database of creatures that were put there by other players.

This sounds pretty cool and a good way to keep things fresh, except for two problems. Problem one: this is the internet. While Maxis has done some filtering and there are ways to ban creatures from your world, it is still hard to get immersed in a world where you encounter a slug named "poo" or a dragon named "stupid idiot." Second, as you find out pretty quickly, other than looks, there really isn't that much that all this customization does. Having a million variants of 15 types of creatures is cool, but does not essentially add anything to the game.

With all of these stages and all of these sandboxes to play around with, you would think this game would be everything to everyone. And, while it is a wildly popular game and will probably sell more than any other game I talk about this year, it just doesn't satisfy some people, myself included.

I think the problem for me is that although Spore has a lot of cool little things to do, none of the pieces have the depth that "hardcore" gamers are really after. After playing a game like Rise of Nations, how can you be satisfied with the simple and somewhat clumsy civilization stage of Spore? After playing games that have long-lasting consequences from your actions, how satisfying is it to be able to reshape yourself at any time you want? For me, none of the stages in Spore were really that great or deep, and you don't make an excellent game out of a bunch of only OK pieces.

So there it is, the most popular game of the year, and I didn't like it. Not only did I not like it, I actually don't think it is a very good game at all. Many will disagree, and this may be a great game for younger or casual gamers, but if you are a hardcore gamer, this isn't going to satisfy you.

Setting out for new land... again

While Spore lacks depth in a lot of areas, there is a very narrow but very fun game that has just been upgraded and re-released: Sid Meier's Colonization.

I've talked a bit about Colonization before, but it still remains one of my favorite games of all time. While I don't think that all of the changes for this remake are for the good, it doesn't spoil the core gameplay and adds a lot of visual polish.

If you've played any of the Civilization games before, Colonization will feel very comfortable to you. The interface is the same, the combat and exploring are the same, and the basics of establishing and growing a city are also the same. Where Colonization departs, though, is in the depth of city management required and the depth of trade and economy that drives how you manage cities.

In Colonization, you set out as, well, a colony from one of the European powers to start cities and gain wealth for the homeland. As you trade various materials with the motherland, the price of those materials varies with supply and demand. Also, as you would suspect, processed materials such as coats and cigars sell for more than the fur and tobacco used to create them.

Now, what you can produce depends on where you set up your cities, which makes city and nation planning very important. As you set up cities and trade systems back with your homeland, you can also establish treaties and trade with the natives or with other European colonies, but your main partner will almost always remain your home nation.

Choosing what to harvest and what to build is the first step in economic success

Instead of progressing along a science tree like you would in Civilization, in Colonization you earn Founding Fathers who provide special bonuses to your nation. These bonuses can range from production gains to extra units and are actually pretty important.

In the original Colonization, you could get all of the Founding Fathers you could earn, which was great. For reasons unknown to me, they decided to limit the Founding Fathers in this remake and now nations compete for them. As a result, you have to decide whether to forgo the opportunity to get one Father in the hopes of getting another.

Revolution isn't what it used to be

In my first playthrough of the new Colonization, I decided to play on the normal difficulty and at first, things were going well. I had played tons of the original so I had no problem getting my economy rolling, making peace with the willing natives and gaining combat experience on those that weren't so friendly. After a couple hundred years, I had a pretty decent number of canons, dragoons, and soldiers, so I decided it was about time for independence. After all, I assumed that, like in the original Colonization, if I could just raise enough support and become too big of a colony to fail, France would come in and bail me out.

Big mistake. The Dutch didn't take too kindly to my declaration of independence and sent out dozens and dozens of soldiers and artillery and began laying waste to my new world utopia. Not only is there no France to come to the rescue in this Colonization, but the entire revolutionary process seemed nearly impossible! Ships bombarded my fortifications from the sea, cannons bombarded my fortifications from land, and dragoons ran over just about everything I had to defend myself with. Despite some help from my allied native American friends, within just a few short years, my revolution was thoroughly squashed.

The mother country chooses to give you death.

Despite these frustrations, this game should be fun for just about everyone in a nice catch-22. If you've played the original, you probably loved it and so you are likely going to want to play this remake and love to see it still alive and more beautiful than ever. If you didn't play the original, you will love the depth of trading and strategy offered and won't miss the things that changed (mostly for the worse) from the original.

In the end, this remake of Colonization succeeds because of the depth and great design of its source, and does so despite the frustrating "enhancements" that were made. Still, I would rather have a game that really pushes me to look deeper than a game like Spore that feels shiny for a few minutes but quickly wears off.

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